The next day Sophia is no longer at Ryland’s Jail. Hiram remains there, and he lives in a dank, filthy cell. Each day the hounds bring him out early, strip him naked and present him to the “flesh-traders,” the low whites involved in buying and selling enslaved people. He has two cellmates: a young boy who was taken away from his free mother, who visits him; and an old man who Ryland’s Hounds beat up mercilessly.
One night the old man tells his story. He loved his wife and they had a wonderful son. Together they worked hard and were respected by everyone: Quality, Tasking, and Low. One day the man’s wife became ill with fever. Before she died she told her husband to keep their son safe. The son married an honorable woman and they had a child. Together with the old man they formed a strong family. But the land grew poor and one day the headman informed the old man that he would sell his son together with the son’s wife and child. However, a few days later the son and child were gone while the wife remained. The old man and the wife comforted each other. Eventually, they began a romantic relationship. But years later the son returned. The old man, stricken by grief and guilt, set fire to the cook-house that night. That’s how he ended up at Ryland’s jail.
One day, the flesh-traders sell the young boy. His mother comes to the jail and screams at the hounds, calling them “child-killers.” She claws at Ryland’s eyes and bites his ear before the hounds drag her away. Soon enough, the hounds take the old man out for his beating and he never returns. Hiram, however, stays at the jail for three weeks. The hounds starve him and violate him. One day, they blindfold and gag him for an inspection by a potential buyer. The man buys Hiram and hoists him into the back of a carriage. After driving for hours, Hiram’s captor takes him out of the carriage, unties his hands and unmasks his eyes. Then he pushes him down into an earthen pit and closes the door above him.
Down in the pit, Hiram gradually loses his sense of time and has difficulty distinguishing between waking and dreaming. He has many visions, including a memory of his first year as a servant to Maynard. One day Maynard ordered Hiram to gather all the Tasked of Lockless to participate in a race. As Hiram organized the others, Maynard called out to him to get in place to participate in the race. Hi, who was still getting used to his new role as a servant, felt humiliated. He ran so hard that he tripped and fell. Maynard laughed at him.
One night Hiram’s captor, who he refers to as “the ordinary man,” orders him to come out of the pit. He allows him to eat a little food and water. Then he places Hiram in a covered wagon with other captives and they drive for an hour. When they get out the man lines up the captives and a group of low whites with lanterns arrives. The captor reads out the alleged crimes of each enslaved man. Then he explains that they will be given an allotment of time to run before the group of low whites hunts them.
Hiram runs, but he is weak and hungry and trips on a tree trunk. The low whites capture him. They beat him up and then hand Hiram over to his captor. The man ties him up and brings him back to the pit. This becomes Hi’s cruel routine. He lives in the pit. At night his captor takes him out, gives him an insufficient amount of food and water, and lines him up with other Tasked men who the whites accuse of crimes. Then the low whites hunt them and each night they beat Hiram and he returns to the pit.
Over time Hiram gets stronger, faster, and cleverer. But even then the hunters are able to capture him. He knows that to escape he must use Conduction. Thinking this power must in some way be connected to his memory of his mother, he spends his time in the pit reconstructing everything he can recall of her. One night, he feels the men closing in around him and finds himself before a pond. He tries to cross the pond but trips and falls. Suddenly, Hiram sees blue mist and blue light. The woods fold back against themselves and he again envisions Maynard telling him to run in the race during his first year as a servant. Hiram moves toward his younger self to comfort him, and then “the world again peel[s] away.” Suddenly, Hiram is on the ground howling in pain. Standing over him is Hawkins.
The next time Hiram wakes up he is at Corrine’s family stead in Bryceton, near the border of Virginia. Immediately, Hiram notices that something is strange there. Hawkins sits and smokes a pipe with Corrine, rather than standing up like a Tasked man in waiting. Corrine tells Hiram that they form part of the Underground that he had been hoping to find all along. They have been watching Hiram because he possesses the power of Conduction, like his grandmother, Santi Bess. Corrine indicates that the routine of the pit and the hunt was their doing, in order to save Hiram from Ryland’s Jail and confirm that he really did have the power of Conduction. Finally, Corinne says that Howell has signed Hiram’s title over to her. She explains that while he does not belong to her, freedom is its own kind of master and he will serve the cause of justice.
Later, Hiram goes downstairs and has a delicious dinner with Corinne, Hawkins, three other Black members of the Underground, and his old tutor, Mr. Fields. After dinner, they all clean up together. The following day Amy begins to tell Hiram how their operations work. She explains that in the Underground there are house agents and field agents. House agents read, study, gather intelligence and produce paperwork. In contrast, the field agents are daring; they work outside and help to free the Tasked. Amy says she is a field agent.
Hiram begins his training as a member of the Underground. After dinner, they do physical training. In the daytime, Hiram does woodworking and resumes his lessons with Mr. Fields. He begins not only to read but also to write his thoughts and impressions, which eventually form the basis for the account we are reading. One day, Corrine gives Hiram his first assignment. She provides him with paperwork that belongs to a man of Quality. Hiram must use his gift of memory to absorb details of the man’s life and personality. After a week Corrine spends a few days interrogating Hiram, asking him not only for facts but also questions of interpretation. Then she asks him to forge a day-pass and free papers for one of the man’s Tasked.
Every few weeks Corrine gives Hiram a new package and he repeats this exercise. In this action, Hiram feels a new power emerging in him. Meanwhile, the group carries out experiments to try to get Hiram to experience Conduction, but these fail. Corrine tells Hiram that while he has excelled as an agent forging paperwork, this is not why they brought him to Bryceton and it is not enough for their cause.
Hiram also wants more. He demands proof of the reality of the Underground beyond what he has seen at Bryceton, and asks to be given the chance to participate in the act of liberating a Tasked person. Corrine concedes, but says that first Hiram must do something that will make it impossible for him to leave the Underground: he must destroy Georgie. To do so, Hiram forges documents that implicate Georgie in the Underground, so that his taskmasters will take revenge in him.
Hiram’s second test is his very first field mission: he is to free a Tasked man named Parnel Johns, working alongside Hawkins and Mr. Fields, whose real name we learn is Micajah Bland. The three walk for six hours south but when they get to the agreed-upon place they find not only Johns but Lucy. While Johns insists that Lucy is his daughter, it is clear that they are lovers. The members of the Underground reluctantly allow both of them to join the group. The following night they arrive at the home of an old white woman from the Underground and leave Johns and Lucy with her.
Soon after, Hiram is to move to Philadelphia to work with the Underground as a free man. He is to keep the same name, Hiram, and assume the last name Walker. He will pose as a woodworker who purchased his own freedom but decided to leave the South due to laws making it more difficult to be a free colored person there.
Throughout The Water Dancer, Coates explores the themes of love, family ties, and the way in which slavery makes these practically impossible. From the beginning of the novel, Hiram feels an attraction to Sophia. However, he expresses that it is difficult for him to imagine acting on this attraction, since he knows they can be separated at any moment.
The story of the old man at Ryland’s Jail offers one of the most tragic expressions of the way in which slavery frustrates love and the formation of family. After the old man’s son and grandchild are sold into slavery, he begins a romantic relationship with his son’s wife. Normally, society might look down on this relationship. Yet the old man explains that grief and loneliness united the couple. In a tragic twist, slavery leads to the return of the son, and the old man practically sends himself to jail to escape the painful situation. The Tasked seek to form bonds of love and family, but without control over their own lives, this is extremely difficult.
At the time Hiram is growing up, the land in Virginia is impoverished. Estate owners are selling enslaved people to faraway places and the separation of families is the norm. Yet the older Tasked reminisce about a more prosperous time when they could form loving families and watch their children and grandchildren grow up on the same estate. Their nostalgia leads Hi to reflect on one of the most important themes in the novel: freedom. Hiram reflects that even though his elders were happily able to form whole families, “that solace is not freedom, and one can be certain but never be secure….There was no peace in slavery, for every day under the rule of another is a day of war.” Hi does not simply want a more comfortable version of slavery, but rather true freedom.
Coates continues to explore what freedom means through his characterization of Georgie Parks. Hi and others mythologize Georgie, “the tasked man who seized his own liberty.” But in reality, Georgie must work handing over escaped enslaved people to his white taskmasters. His freedom is a myth. When Corrine and Hawkins tell Hiram to destroy Georgie, Hi must come to terms with “how thoroughly they had taken us in, so that even our own heroes, our own myths, were but tools to further maintain the task.”
In contrast, in the Underground Hiram begins to feel a new power to attack the institution of slavery through his work forging documents. But Corrine reminds Hiram that “freedom, true freedom, is a master too...one more dogged, more constant, than any ragged slave-driver.” At Bryceton Hiram no longer has an owner. However, he is bound and beholden to the cause of justice. He is to become a member of the Underground—an allusion to the real Underground Railroad, a vast network of people who helped fugitives to escape from slavery in the United States.
Coates takes the reflection on the meaning of freedom a step further with Hiram’s first mission in the Underground. Hiram does not believe that Parnel John is particularly worthy of justice, since he was stealing from his master and selling the goods to low whites. Then the master took the punishment out on all of the Tasked. Yet Hawkins explains that the act of liberating Johns “ain’t about freedom. It’s about war.” By taking Johns, the Underground hopes to harm his master, since Johns is a great field hand. In this way, Hiram must confront his ideal of freedom with what the struggle for a free world actually looks like on the ground.
Coates makes sure to remind the reader that this struggle is not only one of enslaved Blacks seeking freedom from white slavery. It is also a struggle for women’s liberation. Through his characterization of Corrine, Coates explores how people experience different forms of discrimination based on social identities like race, class, and gender. This idea is called intersectionality, since it refers to how these social identities intersect. Corrine is a white, privileged member of the Quality. Yet she tells Hiram that as a woman she also suffers from discrimination: “Some of us are born into society and told that knowledge is rightfully beyond us” and that “the mind of woman is weak.”